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‘We’re just forgotten.’ How Macon neighbors are trying to put their historic area back on the map.

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Building Blocks from Blight

The Telegraph is investigating blight in Bibb County and its impact on the community. Over the next few months, Telegraph reporter Samantha Max will profile local residents affected by blight in their own communities. If you’d like to be interviewed, you can email her at smax@macon.com or call her at (478) 744-4306.

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On an overcast Saturday in early April, North Highlands residents Miki Fluker and Jennifer Grenko drove through their historic neighborhood just east of downtown to survey the housing stock.

An eclectic mix of homes lines the wooded streets behind the Kroger on North Avenue, where members of the 5-year-old neighborhood association rallied together in 2014 to prevent the construction of a gas station at the grocery store in their backyard. Pastel-colored craftsman cottages and Tudor revival homes stand beside small brick ranchers built later on in the neighborhood’s history.

Both women have lived in North Highlands for more than a decade — Fluker for 13 years and Grenko for 20 — and they hope to stay here for several decades more. But they’re worried about their little community, hidden in the hills between Gray Highway and the Ocmulgee River.

A handful of vacant houses have fallen into disrepair, some neglected by absentee landlords and others left behind by homeowners who moved away before they could sell their properties. As development began to flourish in North Macon over the years, Fluker said, communities east of the river were largely forgotten.

“We just got lumped together as an undesirable side of town,” she said.

‘I think we just feel powerless’

Fluker and Grenko want their neighborhood to thrive. As members of the neighborhood association, they hope to foster a tight-knit community in North Highlands and to encourage outsiders to buy homes in the area.

They don’t want blight to get in the way of their mission.

“Not everybody wants to invest in a neighborhood where you’ve got a variety of different kinds of people or you’ve got a blight house four doors down, but you’ve got great houses everywhere else,” Fluker said. “So there’s a certain kind of people that they love living here, and we’re two of ‘em. We love living here.”

Fluker hopes the county will demolish or restore the few blighted homes in the neighborhood sooner rather than later, before the problem spreads. So far, she said, progress has been slow.

“I think we just feel powerless, Grenko said, “because the commissioners aren’t working fast enough on this problem, and it just, you know, it won’t get better by itself.”

Grenko fears for the safety of the children living in rental properties next to many of the blighted homes, who play in the street because they have nowhere else to go. And she doesn’t want a few dilapidated houses to drive down property values.

Grenko bought her home on Boulevard for $79,500 in 1999, according to tax records. Her mortgage payment recently increased by $60, she said, but the value of her property dropped to $57,519 last year, despite more than $46,000 in home improvement costs.

“A lot of what’s frustrating for people who’ve lived here a long time is that this has all happened,” Grenko said. “They moved into a neighborhood that was nice and didn’t have these blight homes, and they’ve stayed, and the houses have kind of crumbled all around them.”

Determined to make it better

Many North Highlands homeowners diligently care for their properties, Fluker said. As she and Grenko rode through the neighborhood, several residents weeded their lawns and tidied up piles of yard waste, which the county has been slow to collect in recent months. Fluker got excited when she spotted a new set of windows wrapped in plastic on a neighbor’s front porch.

“That’s a good investment,” she said.

Fluker and Grenko are determined to make their community better. The neighborhood recently fashioned an old phone booth into a Little Free Library, where residents can swap books at no cost. North Highlands also hosts an annual walking tour, featuring historic properties, like Macon businessman P.L. Hay’s former home, built in 1908 on North Avenue.

The neighborhood association has met with law enforcement officials and traffic engineers and has partnered with local organizations like Historic Macon to address issues of safety and aesthetics. Last year, Grenko wrote a letter to every single county commissioner, urging them to clean up blight in North Highlands. She didn’t receive a single response.

“We’re just forgotten when it comes to getting our voices heard,” Grenko said.

She and Fluker don’t plan to give up on North Highlands. The neighborhood association might not have the funds to tear down a decomposing house on their own, but slowly and steadily, the group is making progress.

“We’re trying to put North Highlands back on the map,” Fluker said. “And we need help doing it.”

This story is part of a series in The Telegraph investigating blight in Bibb County and its impact on the community. Over the next few months, Telegraph reporter Samantha Max will profile local residents affected by blight in their own communities. If you’d like to be interviewed, you can email her at smax@macon.com or call her at (478) 744-4306.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. She joined The Telegraph in June of 2018 and reports on the health of the community. Samantha graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2018. As an undergraduate student, she interned for the Medill Justice Project, Hoy (Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language publication) and NPR-affiliate station WYPR in her hometown of Baltimore. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.
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